Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Interview: The OaKs

About a month ago I did a feature with Florida based, worldly cultured band The OaKs. Finally after a bit of correspondence between me and the wonderful Andy from Frantic I was able to have a little email interview with Ryan Costello and Matthew Antolick from the band. I thought my questions were a little wack but they seemed to get 'em and they provided some stellar answers. Thanks again to Andy and thanks to Ryan and Matt for taking the time to provide some great answers!

Bridging the Atlantic: First off I'd like to thank you both for taking the time to sit down and answer our questions. I haven't been able to stop streaming Songs for Waiting since the first time I started listening to it. At first it really seems like the band has been playing for a long time but I later found out that you guys first put together the music and then went on search for the others. Did you guys find the transition from being just a two man crew to a full band difficult?

Ryan: At first it was really just a matter of necessity - OK, Matt and I made this album in his living room, how we do play it live? There were so many interweaving parts, we didn't know how it could come together in a live setting. Pretty early on, after trying a couple people out, we came into our full 6 person line-up - in fact, we were 6 at our first show (Florida's Anti-Pop Music Festival). What was difficult about it at first was that Matt and I are so in each other's heads musically from almost 10 years of playing together and we have our way of writing and honing ideas - we're really blunt with each other. I think the other band members were a little taken aback by that at first - like whoa, this level of honesty is unsettling. But it's amazing how different the band is now with all 6 of us contributing different influences and personality to the parts and orchestrating ideas, even live on stage in the sections we get improvisational.

Matt: Yeah. The core dynamic pretty much remains the same, in that Ryan and I still get together the way we always have when it's time to write new material. Ryan will have a guitar riff or piano part, and I'll have a drum part or some rhythmic idea. One of us will send his idea to the other, and the dialogue process begins. When the idea matures to a certain degree, we bring it out in rehearsal, which is where all six of us start to put flesh on the skeleton, so to speak. But the joy in the process is that it always becomes something surprisingly different than either of us could have imagined or accomplished on our own.

BTA: Do you guys have any music festivals or small tours coming up? Please tell me that you're coming to Canada in the near future.

R: We're playing South By South West - which we're really looking forward to. And we're playing a festival in Tampa, Florida called the Tropical Heatwave in May. We're planning to tour in the Summer, but it's not booked out yet...still holding out for a booking agent that fits with us. I was just up in Montreal last year and I loved it - a real artist's town. I'd love to play Canada. Can you fly us up?

BTA: Haha! I wish! So was Alan Douches, who has produced and mixed for bands like Sufjan Stevens and Mastadon, an influence on the recording of the album or was all the material ready to record as soon as you took the studio?

R: Alan was a big influence - we sometimes credit him as a mentor. When we came in to make this album we had a vision of what we wanted to do, which was basically to room-mic my 1950's wood-floored house and use all natural reverb and room sound to mix the album together. At the same time, we felt like a bit adrift and inexperienced in the technical side of things. We took a break in the middle of recording when we played CMJ in October of last year, and we took a day and drove out to upstate New York, to Alan's studios. He ordered some pizza, and we sat down for a few hours and just threw around our ideas about what the new album should sound like. We really loved what Alan did with our first album, but on that one he really just came in at the end and mastered it. On this album Allen was a part of almost every step - as we recorded a track and got a rough mix we'd send it to him and he'd give us feedback and even rough-master it so we can hear how a finished product would sound. Allen helped us to be able to focus on just being creative in the recording process because we knew we had his experienced ears and mind to bounce off of.

M: Yes, Alan is just a fantastic human being. My favorite part of the whole meeting was when he told us that the most important thing in the mixing process was to "just trust your feelings." I felt like Luke in light saber training with Obi Wan! This was the first album we ever mixed ourselves, and that was a huge encouragement to us. It was just the guidance we needed. Mixing is so much closer to the actual playing of an instrument than a lot of musicians realize. And we're proud that we took the chance on mixing on our own for this one, because not only was it fun, but educational. And it also allowed us to take the independent do-it-yourself spirit to a whole new level.

BTA: Speaking of the do it yourself attitude, alot of indie artists obviously need a day job to support their visions of a band. What do you guys do for a living?

R: I'm a social worker. I work with kids who have been abused, neglected and abandonded, usually in foster care or in placement with a relative. I go to court and try to lobby on behalf of what I feel is in the best interest of the kids on my case load. Tim is an audio engineer - his expertise was completely invaluable in this album. He did a great job in the mixing side of things, and he's incredibly organized which really helped balance the scattered creativity Matt and I bring. Greg's in seminary and he works two part-time jobs, but he's pretty much a full-time seminarian so don't get him going or he'll bust out Greek and Hebrew on you. Jeremy is a full-time bass player at an Irish pub. Melissa is a writer.

M: And I'm a full time musician with a Moroccan group at EPCOT, in addition to drumming for an Irish Pub Band a few nights a week, as well as drumming with a few electronic and hip-hop artists around town.

BTA: How would you describe your sound?

R: It's tough to peg it down, but I describe it as a mix of folk, 60's rock, and jazz.

M: Yeah that about covers it, but we both come from so many musical directions, that it goes deeper than some one particular style. The music is only part of it. I think another distinguishing characteristic of our music is the biographical and autobiographical, storytelling-like lyrical content. We're really not going for any one particular genre fit. With us it really is all about authentic artistic expression. The music and the lyrical content have to bolster each other in terms of mood, feeling, texture...whatever you want to call it. But authenticity is extremely important. We write what we believe and feel. And it makes me very happy to so many people get that from our music.

BTA: I heard you guys took a more analog approach to the recording of the album, was it a difficult road? And what sort of techniques did you use?

R: This album was interesting in that we recorded the whole thing into my laptop, and wrote songs by bouncing them back and forth over email, but at the same time we took a completely old-school approach to recording which involved using all natural room sound to mix the tracks, using no unnatural reverb or delay. So it was a really interesting hybrid. We spent a lot of time on mic'ing techniques - putting mic's in the hall, or in the back of the room, or 6 inches from the kick drum instead of inside, or on the beater of the kick drum. Melissa and I stood at different distances from the mic as well. This way we were able to play the sounds in different places in the sound field just by placing the microphones deliberately. Then, when Alan stepped in, he felt like the finished product sounded best when run through tape. So we didn't record to tape originally, but we did end up with a tape-saturated sound. That way, we had the flexibility of digital recording, with over 80 tracks on some songs, but using only natural reverb to mix and mastering to tape gave the album old-school analog feel.

M: Right. And it was very important to us to harken back to the feel and experience of listening to vinyl. It's not just about the snap crackle and pop. It's about the way the albums were recorded back then, how warm they were, and how inviting. This also has a lot to do with how albums were mastered then. They weren't pushed to the point of being the ear-fatiguing volume mass that so many modern albums become by the time they've left the mastering facility.

As far as being difficult - you know, I don't think so. It took a lot of trial and error in the beginning to learn how the mic placement worked in the room for the kind of sound we wanted for each particular track. Over time, we just new where to place mics and how to capture what we were going for. It was actually a lot of fun this time around, considering how Ryan and I basically learned how to record while recording "Our Fathers," the first album. Now we're really looking forward to the next recording session! There's so much possibility - between the instruments, the mutual creativity between the six of us, and what we know now...I'm excited for the future!

Again I want to thank the boys for this and definitely look out for Songs for Waiting which drops March 4th

MF Blaz


Tim C said...

Tim from The OaKs here. Great interview! Just wanted to clarify one thing from the first question that might be confusing. Matt and Ryan recorded the first album, "Our Fathers and The Things They Left Behind" and then went looking for the band to pull it off live. The new album "Songs For Waiting" was recorded by the the six of us. We all hope to see everyone who reads this blog at a show sometime in the near future!

Tim said...

It's amazing how you guys don't even have a label... Something of this quality was just made in a room with a laptop? Wow.